Gut strings for a beginner?

January 19, 2017 at 07:50 AM · Hello,

I'm pretty sure gut strings are discouraged for anyone besides advanced players. However, how harmful would it be for a beginner to use them?

I guess first I should say why I want them. I want the quietest, warmest, smoothest sounding strings. I don't need volume, in fact, the less the better. Money isn't an issue. I understand you have to tune them often, but that's not complicated. I understand they are finicky, but one could just take great care.

Anyway, can a beginner use gut strings? I will talk to my teacher but I don't see her for two weeks and I'm just doing some research.

Thanks,

Replies (40)

January 19, 2017 at 08:30 AM · That's great you have the money! Great to experiment and try out both cheap and expensive brands, plain gut, wound gut, and synthetic...

My two cents is that gut strings goes false so quickly, it drives me nuts personally as someone who use them everyday. If you stay on them way past their lifetime, your intonation will suffer.

Gut strings also takes a different response to make them speak well—I don't know how "beginner" you are—but it seems gut strings might be something you will gain more appreciation when you have more bow control and subtlety.

Also don't know if you are thinking of plain gut, wound gut, or some kind of synthetic, but as a gut string gets settled and then worn out, the places where the fingers should go changes gradually. I know I'm not crazy because when I put on a new string, double stops and especially fifths are all in a different position and it takes me a good warm up to get use to it. My gamba friends also experience the same problem and they have to adjust their frets.

And, gut strings have different tension, and in some cases might not be ideal with your violin's modern setup in the long run...

All that being said, everyone who lived in pre-metal string era was a beginner once upon a time, right? You do you, especially because money's not a problem...and hey if you don't like it, you can always change back. Would be curious to know your impressions of gut!

January 19, 2017 at 01:59 PM · Not so long ago, gut strings were the only strings available; both for beginners and advanced players. It is all about your mindset and allowing yourself to be influenced by the public opinion.

January 19, 2017 at 02:28 PM · Gut isn't necessarily soft. It can have as much power as many synthetics. On many instruments, it will generate more overtones (which means more projection).

Just because they were the only things available in the past doesn't mean that they were easy for beginners back then either. You'll note that students these days make far more rapid progress than folks did in Ye Olde Days, and a certain percentage of that is due to better equipment.

If you want a quiet, warm, forgiving, inexpensive synthetic for students, try Pirastro Violinos.

January 19, 2017 at 02:47 PM · Didn't all beginners at one time use gut? No choice then! One problem might be that you have to tune your instrument much more often and to a greater degree, even after the strings have settled. If you are comfortable with that, they become a real option.

Lydia makes a good point -- projection is about more than just loudness, it also has to do with the focal point and complexity of sound. Some gut, like Passione Solo, have as much of a loudness push as modern synthetics!

For gut, Eudoxa strings are nice and warm, I don't find them excessively loud.

January 19, 2017 at 02:56 PM · Hi Corey,

"... experiment and try out both cheap and expensive brands, plain gut, wound gut, and synthetic..."

I agree with Dorian: try as many strings as you can before choose one set that please you.

Gut strings are tuned in 415 Hz. Synthetic strings in 440 Hz. In other words, gut strings are tuned a half tone lower. This makes difference when you are tuning scales, for instance.

If you decided to use plain gut strings (normally A and D) prefer to use more thicker strings cause they last longer than thinner ones.

January 19, 2017 at 03:44 PM · It's not a string material issue. It's a tuning issue.

But not impossible (you'll get better at tuning than your peers). I grew up on gut, as did many.

January 19, 2017 at 03:56 PM · Like bow hair, gut and gut-core strings absorb moisture and thus expand and contract with increasing and decreasing atmospheric moisture (humidity). This means that the strings arer ALWAYS going out of tune - and the different strings do not vary the same way at the same time. So- the problem for a beginner is always having to retune the strings.

I started playing in 1939 (the gut-string days) and I can recall what a nuisance it always was (and little kids are not that strong) - and when the strings went flat with high humidity, the pegs were harder to turn and often seemed stuck. I didn't switch to synthetic-core strings until Pirastro Tonica strings in the early 1970s (Dominants didn't work to my satisfaction on that violin). I have gone back to gut-core strings (Eudoxas and Olives) at least 3 times since then, but the annoyance of having to retune during sets just became too much.

We did not tune to 415 Hz in those days, I think that was probably abandoned 2 centuries earlier.

I would recommend compatible synthetic core strings (Dominant or Tonica are the less expensive one's I've tried in the past ) or there are some decent steel-core strings these days (Helicore comes to mind - if they sound good on your fiddle). On some fiddles Pirastro Flexocore-Permanent can be fabulous (I've got them on one of my violins) but they are as expensive as the top-price synthetics.

January 19, 2017 at 04:43 PM · Pure (not wound with metal) gut is now pretty esoteric, but Heifetz used it for A and D. They have to be treated with a little care, but they won't go false as quickly as wound strings. Get varnished if you want more durability.

Another benefit-- by getting rid of some of the neon overtones of wrapped synthetics, you are forced to listen more carefully to fundamental pitch and will be less prone to play sharp. There is no reassuring sparkle to conceal your wandering away from the overtones of your other strings.

My experience, anyway. Everyone has their own problems.

January 19, 2017 at 05:44 PM · There are teachers who won't let a student pause during a lesson to re-tune, so the student is expected to continue playing in tune. Very good training for intonation and coping with strings when the tuning drifts, and it works - you get to the stage where you're not aware that you're making those little tuning adjustments until you hit the open D and find it's nearly 1/4 tone out, so this is where you continue playing that D on the G string.

Fwiw, I use plain gut A and D, with a covered gut G and a steel E for everything. A steel A (+microtuner) is in my case for the odd occasion when it's called for.

January 19, 2017 at 06:22 PM · I agree with Trevor, and I also used plain gut, with a steel E if I'm short on cash (otherwise, the E is also gut).

I disagree that plain gut doesn't last, as even my somewhat thinner gauge Pirastro Chordas lasted, with all their sound quality, about 3 months for the A, and 6 for the D and G.

Bear in mind, synthetics will LAST longer than this, but they will usually not sound very good beyond 2 months or so (for some strings, this period can be a short as 2-3 weeks!), whereas pure gut will keep the tone (just wipe them with a bot of olive oil if they get dry- you can tell because the string becomes opaque and looks "crinkled"). :)

January 19, 2017 at 07:23 PM · I don't believe synthetic tone is bad (sometimes it's excellent, though really never "like gut"), and the tuning stability is always nice, but I don't consider synthetics inherently easier to play on: gut is, with decent bow control. Synthetics often require a bit more to bite and pull the sound, whereas gut is more pliable.

Gut can also be powerful with a modern violin setup. I never believe I have lost too much projection over string choice. Even with the great and generally loud Evah Pirazzi set, once you go back to gut you realize that although you may have lost an initial "boom" under the ears, you gain many other things with gut. Volume with gut strings has never been a concern for me, personally.

Gut is also warm and rich, but can be bright and brilliant. Don't go for gut JUST for a soft, "mellow" tone (ironically, you can achieve this with many synthetics, though the tone would still be different than gut.) Especially as a beginner, you will rarely start out having a powerful bow arm anyway, regardless equipment.

I would not recommend a baroque setup, however. Stick with a modern gut string setup with a resonant steel E (yes, even the Tricolore/Heifetz approach is "modern". ) Not an "gut or death" proponent, but I see no problem with a modern gut setup, as well as you are open to the few noticeable cons that used to be an every day issue for most many years ago.

(Passione are an option for better tuning stability, but $$$. Even Gold Label set sounds pretty great. Tuning stability, however, is almost of no concern once the strings are stretched and adjusted to both room and player temperature.)

Gut lasts for a long time, IME-must beg to differ with some who commented above me.

January 19, 2017 at 08:12 PM · Thanks for all the insight. It's funny how things are so different for each person and their experiences.

I'm surprised that no one said they were a "bad" idea for a beginner. I must have had wrong preconceived notions, or it's just a very open group of people. :)

Currently, I use Obligatos, and for synthetics, I was leaning towards Violinos. So thanks for that suggestion Lydia.

Maybe I will get a few sets and see. I'm just not sure if I would notice the difference or not. haha. I'm currently one year into learning, practicing everyday and have had a teacher the whole way.

Thanks again everyone. Great discussion.

January 19, 2017 at 09:47 PM · The only thing is that you might need to be a little attentive to the hardware, and many of the people who might give you advice about changing a string, adjusting your bridge, etc., may not be comfortable doing that if you're using strings they can't relate to. And you're not necessarily ready to make all the decisions yourself.

Either way you go, make sure you have a good technician at the local shop look at things once in a while.

January 19, 2017 at 10:29 PM · What about similar synthetic strings?

January 20, 2017 at 03:11 AM · Also, make sure you have a good violin, as plain gut will simply magnify the defects of an instrument below about the 5k price range, as pure gut is fussy, thus needing very precise technique as well (good for learning purposes-especially the thick plain gut D, which gives you supreme bow control). :D

February 13, 2017 at 05:53 AM · Pirastro gold is cheap, but good. Just started using Gamut's Heifetz clones on a viola-very nice.

February 13, 2017 at 11:44 AM · A nice substitute is Aricore: warm tone with no fizz, and forgiving of early-morning bowing!

February 13, 2017 at 04:32 PM · As a fellow [relative] beginner, my biggest question would be, are you sure you want to deal with the constant tuning required? Do you have a good ear for when you're out of tune? That can be a gradually-acquired skill, and I myself appreciated having [synthetic] strings that stayed in tune. It was one less issue to deal with during the earliest years. I think it's great to try lots of strings, but be aware that you might have this subliminal bias toward something that seems "more authentic" and rich sounding, versus a more pragmatic, synthetic, but equally rich sounding experience. I'm reminded of how, when I chose my violin, I really, really wanted a 19th century Czech violin to "win" over the contemporary (and $1K cheaper) violin I was testing alongside it. I was certain the former produced a richer tone. I was in love with the idea of owning THAT violin, which seemed like a more authentic product. But in a blind testing with my teacher, we both agreed that the reality was, the contemporary one sounded just as good AND it was in much better shape, and would be a great instrument for an advanced beginner. Bought it, love it. Very much the right choice. But I did have to let go of a certain emotional expectation I'd been holding onto.

Fortunately, it's much easier to experiment with buying the right/wrong strings than it is the right/wrong violin!

February 14, 2017 at 08:21 AM · @Andre, it is not necessary to detune gut strings to Baroque pitch. Eudoxas and Olives are tuned 440 – 443 Hz mostly. It depends on the music you play, the style how you play and mostly on the kind of violin you play (contemporary or Baroque set-up).

February 14, 2017 at 10:42 AM · As many have said, gut strings were what every single violinist used in the past, not so long ago. So yeah, you can totally use them. However, it may be more complicated to play the violin with them, or less funny cause you will have to deal with problems that regular strings don't have. It's up to you if you think retuning "a lot" will not affect in a bad way your practice session (getting tired of playing because you sound bad, etc...)

February 14, 2017 at 06:40 PM · Would a beginner start the target practice with a moving target? Intonation is already a difficult enough problem without the tuning instability of gut strings.

February 15, 2017 at 03:53 AM · @Sung Han: The whole point of intonation is that it is not fixed at anytime. Therefore, target practice is an essential tool for any string player (excepting extremely early stages before intonation is set- but beginners rarely practice much, so tuning many times is not really required).

The same argument can be made of shoulder-rests etc... "It's more difficult blah blah blah"

Yes, but these "difficulties" are simply a lack of practice, nothing more. It simply that nobody really attempts them anymore that they are seen as "difficulties" (or worse, bad technique).

In art, one should strive for the most difficult option, for this leads to dedicated study and creativity. I play with fingerings for colours instead of security of intonation, use urtext bowings to not cheat-out, and like shifts with the 4th finger.

People tell me I play very beautifully. :)

The essence of improvement is correcting mistakes by trying different methods. If you attempt to fix a problem in 20 ways, you now have 20 options that may solve or enhance understanding of a different problem.

Let me finish with a quote by Ruggiero Ricci-

"Most people don't really improve, and that's because people don't like tto practice what they consider difficult" :)

February 15, 2017 at 05:10 AM · Well, I disagree with the SR issue, as choosing to use one doesn't just mean going after "the path of least resistance", or "refusing to work hard." As you know, one can also play horribly without one, and develop awful habits if not careful (same WITH SR, to be fair.) One can play freely with a SR as well.

I do agree that the "moving target" argument is not the best, as one has to learn to adapt in order to play in tune, whether one uses gut, synthetics, or steel. Playing gut strings won't be much trouble for a beginner barring the most unstable of environments, as they stabilize pretty quickly when stretched.

I am however grateful to Pirastro for introducing Passiones some years ago, as I have seen a healthy resurgence of gut core users among younger players. They may not be Eudoxa/Tricolore/Oliv/etc., but still possess a more nuanced and interesting tone, generally speaking, than all other synthetic options (no offense-synthetics are fine too.)

February 15, 2017 at 05:59 AM · There is an enormous difference between an intermediate-level player using gut, and a beginner using gut.

There is a reason why beginners usually get fine tuners on their strings -- to simplify the process of tuning, and therefore to ensure that the strings start in tune at the beginning of a practice session and hopefully stay that way through its duration. It's easier to learn to tune with fine tuners than with friction pegs, since you can make direct, fine-grained adjustments.

A beginner already has a lot of hurdles to overcome, in learning to place a finger directly and precisely, and to listen for the note to be in tune -- a process which is made easier by the open strings being reliably in tune, aiding a sympathetic ring. A beginner also has to go through a process of sharpening his pitch discrimination, which takes time.

Eventually, as a beginner advances, they learn that note placement is a matter of relative proportion and adaptation to what the ear hears, including taste in intonation, not merely an absolute placement on the fingerboard. But it's useful to reduce the number of variables at first.

Gut stays in tune fairly decently once it stabilizes, assuming the room temperature and humidity is at comfortable and static levels. But the OP is interested in gut for all the wrong reasons.

February 15, 2017 at 04:11 PM · A.O,

I meant shooting projectiles when I said "target practice". Let me remind you that the OP is a beginner. Also what Lydia said.

February 15, 2017 at 04:32 PM · Since money is no object, I would suggest a good low tension synthetic option from the few alternatives. Once he can tune reliably, then you can consider Passione, IF money is no concern.

It is noteworthy that some new violins have rather problematic pegs as well. Wish every aspiring violinist in the world had the privilege of a very good instrument from the beginning.

February 15, 2017 at 05:30 PM · So, we are arguing that beginners should not learn pitch adjustment?

That and shifting should be taught very early (difficult to engrain later on), though for wanting to play quietly I say just play close to the fingerboard. :D

February 15, 2017 at 06:17 PM · A.O.,

Let me quote myself: "Would a beginner start the target practice with a moving target? Intonation is already a difficult enough problem without the tuning instability of gut strings." I think what I said is clear enough.

February 15, 2017 at 08:08 PM · Are there any gut strings that last for more than a few weeks? I'd be interested in trying gut out, as I've never used it and would like to hear what it sounds like, if for no other reason.

February 15, 2017 at 08:38 PM · Only the E lasts for so few days.

For a first timer on a modern violin meant to be played "contemporarily", try "regular" or Solo Passione. You don't need the silvery steel E included in the set-any other favorite E works fine, as long as it matches your instrument.

Gold Label on a budget-they are not "cheapo"/bad strings at all, and the tension is very good (low, but not super low). Plus that E is pretty good. Stability on these is surprisingly nice after a few days.

A Tricolore or Eudoxa set may cost around the same ($70-$80ish?), depending on strings options. Recommend Rigid for Eudoxa G&D.

Oliv is an expensive way to try out gut. But if going that route, I recommend thinner gauges, Rigid G, the Silver D which sounds excellent (no need to get the Rigid Oliv D, and saves $$$), and the E is sublime... the much-maligned Oliv A was an actually excellent string IME.

(Mind you that Tricolore has wound gut options for the D and A, but the popular "Heifetz" option is pure gut for both.)

February 16, 2017 at 09:53 PM · In my experience wound gut lasts a lot longer than synthetic strings. They do take a while to settle, but after a week or so they are quite stable. Big changes in humidity will throw them off.

I prefer the oliv rigid G - wonderful sound. And very long lasting. It has a high price but a lower cost than many synthetic alternatives.

For D and A I am currently using passione solo. And a Warchal Amber E.

I am going to try the Oliv silver D for my next string change.

February 17, 2017 at 06:36 AM · I'm not an expert but I'm definitely close enough to beginner to understand how getting the sport of sound you want contributes to making you practise more.

However, I would be very wary of strings you have to tune constantly unless you have perfect pitch. Why? Cause having open strings at a reliable pitch means you can learn where to put your fingers much more quickly - you get to know the intervals (and getting the internals right contributes way more to a pleasant sound than the type of strings.

I believe (someone correct me if I'm wrong - I know this is the case with passione strings on my violin) there are also issues with gut strings having a slower response, which might also have an impact at beginner level.

I find obligato strings - marketed as synthetic strings that sound like gut - a really good compromise. They don't take long to settle and make a lovely mellow sound.

For string comparisons, look at

http://www.violinstringreview.com/quick-reference.html

Or

http://blog.sharmusic.com/blog/bid/112255/Choosing-the-Right-Set-of-Strings-Redux

However, bear in mind how any string sounds depends on the instrument. On another fiddle they might sound dull or one dimensional. If there's a luthier near you they may have some strings to experiment with. When i bought cheap 2nd hand violins for my string group, just simple tonica strings made them sound a world of better; my obligatos didn't work at all, nor did most of the other strings I experimented with.

February 17, 2017 at 02:13 PM · Gut strings have quicker response to varying bow and vibrato changes (expression) vs faster start of note speed that synthetics have.

BUT, the instrument decides the response of the strings on it, and a very responsive would have a neglible response time difference when strung with gut instead of synthetics (assuming both of the strings work on it).

February 19, 2017 at 08:09 PM · My experience of using plain gut strings in orchestra over the last three years is that they require no more re-tuning in 2-hour rehearsals or concerts than the synthetics I used to use previously. Further, I find that new plain gut strings settle down very quickly, within 20 minutes. I think this may be because the gut is pre-stretched during the manufacturing process.

Gut does respond to changes in humidity and temperature, not necessarily dramatically so, but when you know this you are prepared and can take the appropriate action - like allowing yourself 10 minutes to warm up and re-tune at the venue - and then you should have stability for the rest of next couple of hours.

All types of string change their tuning to some extent when being played; it is part of the skill set of a violinist to be able to make the necessary finger adjustments on the fly in order to play in tune without thinking about it. In order to learn that part of the skill set it is said that Heifetz (and others) wouldn't let a pupil re-tune during a lesson.

February 19, 2017 at 10:19 PM · Agree that gut's instability is, generally speaking, greatly overstated. And the Gold Label set I used last year was stable within 2-3 days. Even the Eudoxa didn't take that long.

Though it's true the most beginning of students can have trouble with pitch accuracy. That said, gut rarely goes that much out of tune, barring an exceptionally unstable environment.

I am not saying that one must use gut for beginners (I would not outright recommend them for that application), but don't see how it's an "horrible" idea, as long as the caveats are known. If the inexperienced student "survives" this "gut adaptation" process, all the better for him/her.

And yes, we must all learn to play in tune regardless possible tuning shifts during performance.

(Though I agree the OP should not seek gut *just* for the reasons stated in the first post.)

February 20, 2017 at 03:54 PM · It's also worth considering the financial aspect of strings. The cost of strings is a significant part of playing the violin - a bit like fuel and tires for a car, I suppose. As has been pointed out many times on this forum, covered synthetic strings generally have a limited tonal life, even though externally they can still look like new. This is due to the interfaces between the various layers between the core and the outer casing breaking down with normal playing, and the tone therefore deteriorating. People talk about a playing life of up to about 160 hours before the string loses its tone to an unacceptable degree. It also seems that the more up-market (and expensive) the synthetic string the shorter its life, unfortunately. Plain gut doesn't have interfaces to break down.

In contrast, with the Pirastro Chorda gut strings I use (plain gut E, D, A, wire-covered gut G) I expect to get a year's use from the A, D and G. This usage includes about 300 hours of orchestral rehearsals and concerts, plus further practice hours. The gut E doesn't last so well, due to fraying in the fingerboard area, which gets a bit distracting, so I get through about 4 gut E's per annum. This results in a total £73 annual string expenditure on-line for one violin, for a set of good-sounding and reliable strings. Buying strings in a store is about 10-25% more expensive, but does have the advantage that you can usually ask a knowledgeable person for advice if you need it.

I recommend looking at the website of a good on-line string vendor such as thestringzone.co.uk to compare prices. There are other good vendors of course, but I have personally found TheStringZone to be reliable and quick.

February 21, 2017 at 10:59 PM · I use Pirastro Passione, which I find to be a very different animal (friendlier!) than some of the other strings mentioned in this thread. I only change every few months, so longevity has been a nice surprise. There's lots of tuning the first week, but after that, I don't notice any more than I did with synthetics.

February 22, 2017 at 08:06 AM · I have the same experience as Anish with passione strings. In humid environment the response is slower. Interestingly I don't find the same for Oliv, so I will not blaim the gut alone.

February 22, 2017 at 09:39 PM · Yes, gut strings lasts for a while-not sure where that synthetic marketing "pro" came from (that synthetics supposedly have a "longer lifespan" than gut, which many have believed without questioning it-maybe only when referring to gut E strings, that may be the case?) Of course, some last longer, and not all synthetics are bad. The one good feature of synthetics is extreme stability, and being more immediately reliable, within hours-some also have their own unique "sound signature", that can be useful for many violins/violinists.

So again, many thanks to Pirastro for offering Passione, putting gut again in the picture for many younger violinists. There has been a noticeable resurgence of gut users among the general population, even if it still is a relative niche compared to Dominant users.

The G&D Oliv and Eudoxa strings generally also last and last.

February 22, 2017 at 10:56 PM · I've never found Olivs to last for me. About three weeks of sounding great, and then mediocrity after that. Maybe they last a long time at the mediocre level; I never had the patience to keep them on the violin after that point.

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